The Importance of Women in Leadership

The Importance of Women in Leadership

For years, business schools have been trying their best to attract more women to their programs. During the early 2000s, many top business schools stalled at 25%. Whenever they reached 25 or 30%, they celebrated. The thought of ever having a class composed of 50/50 men and women did not even seem possible.

Now, it’s not nearly as much of a pipedream. In November 2017, the Forté Foundation announced promising new statistics about the enrollment of women in MBA programs. In the last five years, its member schools have been showing signs of progress.

In fact, 17 of these schools have reported 40% or more women in their MBA class. In 2013, only two schools had accomplished that feat. In addition, two schools – the George Washington University School of Business and University of Pennsylvania Wharton School – reported 45 % or more in 2017.

This data prompted Elissa Sangster, executive director of Forté Foundation, to predict the possibility of reaching 40% enrollment of women at all top business schools in less than five years, and 50% by 2030.

“Why is this significant? There is evidence that an MBA can provide both career advancement and significant pay gains for women, giving them greater economic mobility,” said Sangster in the press release for this revelation. “And efforts to support women to pursue an MBA can contribute to a more diverse leadership pipeline at companies.”

There’s no time to rest on our laurels, however, says Sangster in an interview with QS. Schools must capitalize on the momentum they have been building. The question becomes how. Sangster says the most successful programs attract women by making the whole community come together to address the issue.

Paying attention to the needs of female students and recognizing that lip service alone is not enough are fine ways to start. Data points show that seeing women in leadership is good for business, good for everyone, she adds.

“You can’t just appoint women to positions of power,” says Sangster. “You must have a shift in corporate culture. You must change minds.”

Before you can expect such changes, you have to get more women into positions of power. That effort begins with preparing women for such roles at MBA programs. The Wharton School says it, “admits more women than any business school in the United States.”

Wharton utilizes outreach efforts to attract more women. For one, it partners with the Forté Foundation of which it was a founding member. With the organization, Wharton connects with women in high school, college, MBA programs, and diverse kinds of businesses.

Another way the school reaches women is through the Wharton Women in Business (WWIB) student organization. It organizes numerous events, including the Annual WWIB Conference and the WWIB Career Fair. Through the group’s coffee chats, students meet with alumnae all over the world.

Turning to organizations is an effective tool for the George Washington University School of Business (GW), too. It also works with the Forté Foundation to reach out to women. And it has an active chapter of the National Association of Women MBAs on campus.

GW also offers executive education for women. For example, it is working with Women in Bio to prepare women in the life sciences for executive roles, says Susan L Kulp, associate professor at GW School of Business. And, importantly, women discover role models and mentors on campus.

“GW walks the walk, rather than simply talking the talk,” says Kulp. “When you visit GW, you see women throughout the business school and university at all levels. This includes deans, senior faculty, and administrative leaders.”

That is one initiative Sangster wishes would become more popular at other business schools. She is surprised that while the PhD Project exists to recruit more minorities into faculty, no organization has popped up to do the same to achieve gender parity. This might be the next logical step for the movement, she adds.

Sangster, however, is pleased with the progress being made when it comes to attracting more women to business school. Undergraduate business programs have long been able to attract classes with about 40 to 45% female enrollment. Now, MBA programs are catching up.

Demonstrating the financial benefits of a career in business has long helped undergraduate programs convince women to sign up. In particular, accounting attracts parents of undergraduate women because it is seen as providing a secure, well-paying job. Thus, they encourage sons and daughters alike to pursue this career, says Sangster.

What educators must do now is demonstrate the financial and job security benefits of other sectors within graduate business circles. They are also considering the timing of business school. When programs were asking for five years of work experience, women were turned off, for example. They were reluctant to sign up because it was around the same time they wanted to start families.

Attending an intense MBA program and being pregnant, or raising young children, simultaneously seemed downright crazy. Nowadays, schools are asking for a more reasonable two to three years of work experience, which brings women back in the fold, says Sangster. They don’t feel like they have to choose between the career and the family.

Much of the progress is a result of educating women about their options. Forté Foundation and the schools themselves talk to women about what an MBA program can do for them. The organization also provides a 10-month program, MBA Launch, which helps women put their best foot forward and prepare for a graduate business school curriculum. During this time, they also get to know the schools and see whether the programs are a right fit for their needs and goals. 

Forté Foundation says its efforts are paying off. Its database has grown from 1,800 in its early days to 100,000 today. The momentum will continue as schools evaluate their efforts to ensure more balanced representation of genders among students and faculty, more diverse teams, and inclusivity in courses, such as case studies that feature women protagonists, says Sangster.

“The thing that will change the boys’ club culture,” she adds, “is more women.”

Francesca Di Meglio

Francesca Di Meglio has written about higher education for two decades. She covered business schools and all aspects of management education for what became Bloomberg Businessweek from May 2004 to December 2013. Di Meglio was the consultant editor for the book Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting into a Top MBA Program (85 Broads Publishing, 2011), which was written by admissions consultant Betsy Massar. In addition, she is a family travel and parenting blogger at the Italian Mamma website

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